Wednesday, December 26, 2007

smack! (restart): training-based games

I hope y'all's Christmas was awesome.

I'll eventually get back to Friday's topic, but I want to throw this out there instead today. Over at the CrosuS forums, RedOctober and I disagreed about the worth of a particular game. At one point in the discussion, I had this to say:

"You're wrong, though, if you think the only reason gamers like me don't enjoy games like this is difficulty. It's not about it being hard, but how it is hard. I'm not an achievement-oriented gamer. I focus much more on the moment than the goal during gameplay. Accomplishing something doesn't get me as excited as doing something really cool and fresh. So I don't mind games being hard, but I expect them to be hard in dynamic and engaging ways.

When an FPS game offers a high diffulty mode by making the AI smarter or limiting ammo, that's fun for gamers like me. But the difficulty in Exolon DX is hardly dynamic, and restarting from the beginning over and over to get a little further is a type of gameplay that lost its appeal for me when games became capable of more. When I was a kid, I loved games like Contra and Ghosts 'n' Goblins, but games have evolved and I have different expectations now. "

So my question now is: Is that sort of gameplay still viable? Are games like Ghosts 'n' Goblins, based on trial-and-error and near-perfect performance to complete linear adventures, relics of the past? Or will that sort of gameplay continue to have a niche in the industry beyond the generation of gamers who grew up with it?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Games can't be timeless?

Josh Pankratz, over at Ripten, says games will never be timeless.

I was hoping to respond to that article today, but my response is taking more time than I have available. It's a complicated issue that demands a lot of thought... I've been going back and forth on my view for the past couple hours. So I'm just going to point you to the article today, perhaps here some of your thoughts, then post my response sometime tomorrow.

I will get back into a daily habit of posting soon, I promise!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Favorite MMOs

Following in the footsteps of Cameron, who got the idea from F13 (which I don't follow regularly either), here's a list of my favorite MMOs. Only six, because these are all I care to mention.

1. Star Wars: Galaxies -- People trash it all the time, but, in its original form, SWG was a phenomenal game. It did many things wrong, but it pushed the genre forward as well (at least, it would have, if anyone had bothered to follow).

Visual customization was extensive and mattered. NPCs and creatures were active when not engaged in combat. The world felt alive. Characters had limited (mortal) health and strength, making them feel like true members of the gameworld, rather than outsiders who could crush NPCs on a whim and had no relation to them. It also resulted in tremendous diversity in character apparel and helped take the focus off optimization. The crafting system allowed more customization and experimentation than anything other to date. The taming of wild creatures opened up a whole new avenue of exploration. The Galactic Civil War was fun and evident everywhere, even emerging in the occasional NPC-vs-NPC battle which players could walk by or join as they please. There were many factions. There was true wilderness and a feeling of distance.

It was easily my most immersive MMO experience. I'm sure that was at least partially due to the fact that it was Star Wars.

2. Everquest -- My first MMO experience and, therefore, my longest (almost a year). Newbie content and advanced content were not initially separated by hard barriers. Level 10 and level 40 creatures often existed in the same zone, resulting in a real sense of danger and anticipation. Players were often surprised by encounters they didn't expect, which are generally more memorable than predictable encounters. The "DING!" acted as a bold celebration whenever the player progressed, cheering the player on. The world was huge and offered long exploration.

3. Everquest 2 -- A cinematic experience that I plan on returning to next time I upgrade my computer. Put the graphics on High, turn on the Letterbox, tap F10 to turn off the HUD, and the immersion is wonderful. SOE did a great job on the animations, which make the combat infinitely more interesting. Skills can be upgraded through exploration (loot drops). On High graphics, some creatures are camouflaged (like lions in the tall grass of the Commonlands). The best quests I've ever seen in an MMO were in EQ2, though they certainly didn't represent the majority of EQ2 quests. The world was more rigidly structured than SWG's, but still alive with non-combat activity.

4. World of Warcraft -- Finally, a decent combat pace in an MMO. The warrior's bloodlust, in particular, was a great idea, since it encourages players to move quickly between encounters. The art is imaginative and polished, and the graphics are good while also easy on computers. Some skill choice is available (though I was hugely disappointed that they didn't incorporate the full freedom of Diablo 2's system).

5. City of Heroes -- Being able to customize my character visually right away was great. More impressive were the skill customizations. Two players could have the same skill but have it tweaked different (greater power, faster retime, greater accuracy, etc). Chasing down fleeing in this game actually felt fun, since it often involved leaping over obstacles, climbing ladders, and pushing past civilians. Falling did damage to enemies and players alike, so it could be used tactically during combat on rooftops.

6. Shadowbane -- Originally, I was going to list my top five MMOs, but I have to list Shadowbane. The runestone system in character customization was a great idea. The skill system allowed for weapon specialization without reversal being impossible. It was my first PvP MMO and, while I wasn't interested very long, it provided some memorable PvP experiences. The newspaper or journal of happenings in the world and maps were good ideas.

Honestly, I'm more into single-player games and co-op games these days, but I'm looking forward to trying The Agency and Warhammer Online. Sadly, Trials of Ascension never left development and Darkfall doesn't grab my eye like it used to.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Leave the game alone!

Yet another poll for you. As I said here:

"As a gamer, I’ve always been irritated by patches. Patches for other forms of software are generally limited to bug fixes, optimization, and feature additions. Game patches, on the other hand, usually make significant changes to original gameplay. ..."

How I feel about patches makes little difference if most online gamers are just fine with them, I suppose. Do we have any idea what the majority thinks? Do changes to original gameplay (generally, not just the nerfs to your favorite class) bother you?

It's a certainty that a developer's game will not be exactly how he or she wants it to be at release. Developers of other industries are willing to accept that and treat their products as finished, if only basic (meaning additions are possible). Why is it different with games?

Aside from the problems mentioned in that WTG article, changing important gameplay features after release opens players' eyes to all the game's flaws. It makes gamers endlessly critical of published designs and diminishes their enjoyment of the games.

Some developers talk as if an MMO is some great democracy in which community participation in design takes gameplay to new levels. But that hasn't happened, has it? MMOs today haven't progressed far beyond what they were a decade ago. Most individual MMOs face the same problems years after release that they faced initially, like balancing issues. And if so many other industries can improve just through internal research and occasional polling of outsiders, why can't game developers do the same?

Should original gameplay generally remain untouched after released, excepting for bugs and polish?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Are peripheral tools common?

Finally, I'm posting again! Sorry about the long hiatus. That's why I try to post everyday... if I give myself one free day, it quickly turns into two, then three, then a week, and so on.

I've always played games as is -- no mods, no minor tweaks, no tools running in the background. You know... gaming as God intended. ;)

Yet the use of those extra tools, alternate UI, and such seems pretty common.

So now I'm wondering just how common. Am I the exception? Do most PC gamers use such things these days? Or is it still mainly the tech-savvy gamers and online gaming veterans who seek to augment their gameplay?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Babies and badges

Hey all. My brother and his wife just had their first child, my first nephew, and I'm tired. I'm also behind on my work, so I'm busy with that. So that's why I didn't blog yesterday and probably won't today either.

But I did post a new article today over at Write the Game about rewarding good behavior (good beta feedback, forum behavior, gameplay decisions, etc).

That site's just getting off the ground, really, so I'd appreciate it if you'd give it a look... and, if you like what you read, perhaps pass it on. I'm writing for WTG a couple times per week, and there are some other good writers there.

Hopefully, I'll be back in the swing of things by tomorrow. I've already got some articles started... finishing them is the chore. Anyway, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sales figures for games?

Does anyone know of a site that consolidates sales figures for all video games?

There are times when I'd really like to know how many copies a particular game sold or how game sales compare.

Monday, December 10, 2007

SUWT #15

Darren's Shut Up, We're Talking #15 podcast is up. Here's my ridiculously long response.

I won't predict success or failure, but here's some stuff I would consider if I was making a Star Trek MMO.

John mentioned the "depth" of the Star Trek IP. Star Trek was entertaining, but it was also a particularly intellectual TV show; especially the original series. Nearly every episode explored a serious philosophical question. Any faithful Star Trek game would also include serious philosophical inquiries. I agree that Bioware might be a good match for Star Trek, because I think they would take that philosophical aspect seriously and ensure character choices are the heart of gameplay.

Star Trek is also about diplomacy and competing empires. Humans, Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, and all the rest might be allies from time to time, but they all represent nations trying to balance international community with self-interests. A game should include a depthful study of complex politics.

Non-lethal combat was also an important aspect of the TV series, though there was certainly plenty of lethal combat as well. I would avoid the traditional die-and-respawn mechanic that MMOs normally use. A "WoW in space" would be utterly disrespectful to the IP.

Human frailty is pivotal in Star Trek. It's ok for the player's character to ridiculously lucky and skillful, but even the strongest, smartest, and most resourceful characters in the TV series got captured and defeated time and time again. They all genuinely feared for their lives and the lives of others. They all feared pain. A game should ensure that player-characters are not demi-gods compared to NPCs. It should ensure that players are always under the command of someone and disobeying that command matters (Kirk might have been a rebel, but he was punished for it more than once). It should ensure that players experience defeat in more ways than having to respawn. The game doesn' thave to be hard, but the world should feel more realistic than most MMO worlds.

Nobody likes the grind. Nobody.

Grinding isn't just a series of repetitive actions or redundant scenarios. A series of actions only becomes a grind when it's boring -- when the player would rather skip content than experience it, but can't skip it.

Darren said he's happy "as long as I can see my next goal", but that's settling for weak content. No gamer should have to sludge past boring content to reach the fun. Because of different playstyles and personal interests, most games have at least some content that any given gamer would prefer to skip. But if most gamers are only focusing on the goal most of the time, that game is more about Pavlovian manipulation than fun.

The gameplay in Tetris is repetitive, but it's still fun. Halo is repetitive, but still fun. Repetition isn't the problem.

I won't apologize! ;)

I haven't been able to put much more time into the game yet, but I have been considering why I've been so much more critical of Mass Effect than anybody else. Honestly, it bothers me that nobody has agreed with my early impression of the game more than partially, so I'm trying to understand what might be at the root of that disagreement. These are the possible reasons I've come up with so far:

I haven't been tackling the main questline.
I've been focusing on exploring the side missions and planets. Most folks who have greatly enjoyed Mass Effect seem to have focused on the main storyline. They also seem more willing to accept it for what it is, rather than what it was hyped to be -- meaning that it seems to be a far more linear game than advertised. It seems to be about the story and little else. I keep saying "seems to be" because I'm still basing all of this on the first four or five hours of gameplay (which, as I always say, matter immensely for any game).

Only one planet in each solar system (plus the occasional ship) is open to exploration; the rest are just textual references. And on each of those exploreable planets is only one or two depthful encounters. There might be five blips on the map, but four of them just represent resource nodes or cut-and-paste wreckage that act as 5-second mini-games (hit 'X' when it tells you to, 'Y' when it tells you to, etc. -- hardly the sort of thing I'd expect in a Bioware game, and certainly not engaging). Exploration isn't rewarded with quality content, but with cookie-cutter garbage.

Some other reviewer verified my (early) experience that every planet is basically just the same mountains and plains with a different texture, different gravity, and different weather. Perhaps that's more realistic, but it certainly isn't fun.

I'm an action-oriented gamer
I fully expected Mass Effect, being a Bioware game, to focus on a linear main-narrative. That's no surprise. What is a surprise is how little else there is to the game. Neverwinter Nights is among my favorite games of all time, and I've played KOTOR and Baldur's Gate as well. The stories were not the only engaging aspects of those games; the action was fun, too.

First, look at skill-progression. After doing great jobs on Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR, I didn't expect Bioware to fall into a classic mistake of skill design: concentrating on stat-tweaks that are invisible to the player. A 3% bonus to accuracy? That's worth a skill point? Are you kidding me? I don't care what sort of audience a game is aimed at... if the player can't feel the effect of a skill choice, that choice does not matter.

As others have pointed out, the companion A.I. is pretty terrible. Micro-management is an absolute necessity, because my NPC companions are morons who die within seconds. Once, I ordered them to just stay behind and twiddle their thumbs while I kill all the enemies, because they got me killed the first time I tried that encounter.

Stat-based gun combat is tricky to implement. In Hellgate: London, the player witnesses every missile, miss, and contact. Flagship did a far better job with it. In Mass Effect, the primary feedback is the enemy's healthbar, and I feel like I'm firing blanks half the time. The cinematic presentation of combat is definitely great, but the combat itself is mediocre at best.

I'm more critical of hyped stuff
Whenever anything, game or otherwise, is popularly touted as the best invention since sliced bread, I'm skeptical. I have no doubt that I'm being more critical of Mass Effect than I would be of something like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Fight Night: Round 3. I was also exceptionally critical of Bioshock and Halo 3 (I own the latter and like it; I plan on trying the full version of Bioshock soon).

However, I'm also obsessively self-critical and try very hard to be completely honest with myself, so I don't use words like "mediocre" and "alright" about a game everybody and his mother seems to love until I'm certain there's solid logic behind those claims. The stuff I say isn't just nitpicking -- I'm interested in the overall gameplay and want to enjoy the game -- but I'm reluctant to give any game five stars, if you know what I mean.

I'm a dumb Aspie
The obsessive self-honesty is just one symptom of Asperger Syndrome, a condition that describes the strange way my brain developed. Another symptom is extreme difficulty noticing and understanding body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and non-literal speech (like sarcasm; I love using it, but I rarely catch it when others use it).

Much of the hoopla surrounding Mass Effect as an innovative game is its admirable progress with exactly those aspects of language. So, even though I notice and respect what Bioware has done there, it makes perfect sense that it would have less of an effect on my overall gameplay impression than it would have on players within the normal range of non-verbal, social intelligence.

Anyway, another interesting SUWT podcast. =)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Why buy short games?

As anyone who follows my blog regularly knows, I'm a fanatic about replayability when it comes to games. I don't buy games unless I think they'll last me more than a few weeks.

I can think of plenty of movies that I respect as good movies even though they're really only great once through. Two examples are The Game and Memento. But the films I buy on DVD are ones I know I'll want to watch again from time to time.

There are paintings that I can appreciate but wouldn't want to look at every day. Any poster or picture I buy to hang on a wall or set on a bookshelf is going to be one with continuous value. Scarily enough, one of my sister's gave me a card copy of that painting once because "it made me think of you" -- yeah, that should tell you something. =P

While people commonly make impulse purchases of music albums, I think almost everyone would say that he or she tries to buy only music that will last.

Is it different with games? I don't think so.

True, a 10-hour game will last a long time for a gamer who can only play 10 minutes here, 30 minutes there. But I think the only reason so many people choose to buy short games for $50, rather than rent them for $10, is because rental services keep such low stocks of each game. If a gamer could go to a rental store or online service with near-certainty that the game he wants will be in stock, what reason would there be to purchase the game instead?

If a gamer isn't sure how much playtime he'll be able to squeeze in on a given week, that doesn't necessarily mean he has to re-rent the game and pay more. Gamefly allows renters to keep a game as long as they continue to pay the subscription fee. Even if the renter took two full months to complete the game, the cost of both months' subscription is still less than buying a new game... and Gamefly allows two games out at a time.

What do you think? Is there any reason short games don't go straight to rental, like B-movies go straight to Blockbuster, other than rental stock shortages?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Testing <---> Fun

Moorgard commented today on the blurry border between beta and marketing. His post got me wondering:
  • Should beta testers expect to be entertained?
  • Can developers reasonably expect unpaid testers to endure boring content in order to make the game fun?

The more excited a tester is about a game, the more willing he or she will be to work, rather than just play, to help that game reach its potential. The less impressed a tester is with a beta, the more that tester will wonder if he or she made a mistake in signing up... and consider investing less work, less time, or quitting altogether.

Beta signups = blind contracts?
Certainly, disillusioned testers are still under a moral obligation to help test to one degree or another. But it can't be said that they knew full well what they were getting into, can it?

Trailers for box office films are often deceptive, despite the fact that a film trailer is the same basic type of experience as the full film (in both cases, the audience watches and listens). Interactive media, on the other hand, cannot be be comparably experienced through anything other than a demo (which is impossible for many MMOs and other games). Feature lists, FAQs, interviews, and trailers cannot ensure that the gamers who sign up for the beta test truly know that this is a game they're interested in.

Consequently, signups for beta testing are vague, largely blind, agreements. It's the equivalent of asking someone simply "Will you help me?" instead of "Will you help me to [a description of the task]?". Many testers who find that the beta doesn't match their expectations came into this position innocently (with no prior beta experience). Innocent or not, how critical can you be of someone for helping half-heartedly when that person had little knowledge of what he or she was getting into?

It seems the big question is: How far along should a game be before inviting outside testers?

I was fortunate enough to be involved in one of the early beta phases of EQ2's testing. The game was remarkably complete and functional at that time (at the early levels, at least). As a result, I was more enthusiastic in testing than usual. I reported more bugs, made more suggestions, and was basically a better tester than I was in other betas.

Are outside testers usually necessary to get the game to at least a marginally fun point in the game's evolution? I know there's much more involved than what I've covered here, but making beta fun as possible seems to be in the developer's interest.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Xbox 360 and PS3 games for 20 bucks?

According to this Ripten article, the new Beowulf game is marked for $20!

It sounds like a savvy marketing strategy to me. Beowulf might be a good game, but it has little chance when placed in direct competition with the slew of popular games this Christmas. Twenty dollars is within the impulse purchase range. That's a big enough price difference to convince many gift-givers that it's not worth spending more on a hyped game.

Not to mention the oddity of the price has people talking about it and advertising for the company.

What do you think? Will this happen with other games? Will it happen more often? Or is $20 for a 360 game so soon after release just a symptom of this winter's long list of worthwhile games?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tactics versus Strategy

On the Isotx forums, there's an interesting debate between two developers about MMO design and which (if any) MMO elements require a qualitatively different production process than when producing a game of smaller scale and fewer players.

I'll be posting some of my thoughts about that on Write the Game tomorrow, but here's a copy of my response to a side-discussion which arose. What is the difference between strategy and tactics? Is one a subset of the other?

There is a difference between tactics and strategy, and it isn't scale; it's spontaneity.

A strategy is planned primarily before the encounter. A tactic is planned primarily during the encounter. The emphasis in strategy is preparation. The emphasis in tactics is reaction. A general can use tactics and a footsoldier can use strategies, though each profession generally requires more of one method than the other.

Say my football lands in my neighbor's fenced yard with his unfriendly Rottweiler. I might devise a strategy to distract him by throwing a nice, juicy bone across the yard... just enough time for me to hop the fence, grab my ball, and hop back over. So I throw the bone and the beast of a dog starts to run after it... but he stops and turns around when he notices me hop the fence. Uh oh. Whereas I could have taken hours to plan my strategy, I now have only seconds to decide how I'm going to reach that ball... or if I should just forget the ball and run for my life. That's tactics.

I might have anticipated this possibility in my strategizing, but the circumstances I now find myself in were not entirely predictable: How far is the dog from me? How far am I from the ball? How accurate was my throw of the bone? Why, oh why, did I not notice the second Rottweiler lying in shade behind a bush?! Because I am having to process new information and plan my response within an immediate timeframe, this might still be tactical situation, despite my planning previous to the encounter.

Strategy and tactics certainly exist along a continuum, but they are distinguishable from one another... just as there is no definite border between the colors blue and green, but that does not prevent us from recognizing the two as usefully separate terms.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The big dogs are getting bigger

In the film industry, over 90% of box office sales can be attributed to one of six publishers: Sony/Columbia, 20th Century-Fox, Buena Vista, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Universal. It took less than fifty years for these companies to become the unshakeable kings of the hill.

It happens in every industry. As business gets bigger and more expensive, companies merge and consolidate to simultaneously improve their own potentials and reduce competition. Anti-monopoly laws were created to prevent competition from being eliminated completely (many of the major oil companies in the USA are the result of one giant company, Standard Oil, being forcibly fragmented).

It's happening in the game industry. Ultimately, fewer than ten, perhaps fewer than five, publishers will control almost all of game publishing.

I think we've just witnessed the formation of one of those giants.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Review pointer: Mass Effect

I was planning on writing my own complete review of Mass Effect sometime, beyond my initial impressions. I wasn't looking forward to it, since it seemed I am the only person who thinks Mass Effect isn't really that impressive.

Lo and behold! Reverend Anthony of Destructoid has put up a review that I agree with. I don't feel so alone now. =)

Since it's looking like I won't be able to squeeze in much playtime in the next few weeks, I wanted to just point you toward his review. Basically: it's not a bad game, but it's not a game that really stands out either. I'd probably rank it somewhere toward the top of the "average" range. Mass Effect is interesting enough to make me want to keep playing, but I'm rarely excited as I'm playing. That's largely because of the surprising number of glaring flaws.

To be fair, some of it's problems are due to the game reaching toward better gameplay. I wrote about that briefly here. But other flaws are not so forgiveable.

Sometimes, you get looped back into a conversation you've already heard. And, unlike in Neverwinter Nights, you can't leave the conversation at any time. You must wait for the "Goodbye" dialogue option to reappear, which can take a while.

The first time this happened, it was because I didn't know what to expect and chose a familiar dialogue option, thinking I would get a new response based on my character's new knowledge. Bioware apparently wants players to be able to refresh their memories by reselecting a conversation tree. But I soon learned that you can get the same line of dialogue from asking a different question -- you can be tricked into enduring an old conversation. That's a result of poor planning/editing.

And, as Anthony mentioned in his review, the vehicle controls are awful. All the bouncing, ala Halo's Warthog, is fine. The fact that the various gravities of different planets affect the vehicle's hold on the ground... that's awesome. But place this vehicle in a flat, paved parking lot and it would still be hell to control. Going straight's easy enough, but turning accurately is a chore. Reverse? Don't bother trying. You will get used to it, but combat's always a pain with the Mako.

It's a game worth checking out. But, in hindsight, I probably would have bought something else first and Mass Effect later. Worth buying, but not a priority purchase. Bioware's a great company, so I expected better.